Former Guardsman led the way for black athletes in the Winter Olympics
From left to right, bobsledders Jeff Jordan of Canada, Jeff Gadley and Willie Davenport of the U.S. team competed in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Olympic Organizing Committee)

ARLINGTON, Va. (Feb. 23, 2010) -- A National Guardsman was one of the first two African-Americans to ever qualify for a U.S. Winter Olympic team.

Col. Willie Davenport and Jeff Gadley pushed a bobsled at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. Their four-man team finished 12th.

"There is myth in this country that blacks can't make the American winter Olympic team. Jeff and I proved this to be wrong and that you don't have to be rich and white to make it," Davenport told JET magazine in 1980.

The first African-American gold medalist was Vonetta Flowers, who won while competing in the two-man bobsled event with Jill Bakken, a Utah National Guard member, during the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.

This year, speed skater Shani Davis was the first African-American to win an individual gold medal in the Winter Olympics. He won the 1,000-meter event.

Davenport, who was a five-time Olympian and 1968 gold medalist in the hurdles, is one of just eight Americans to compete in both the Summer and Winter Olympics.

"Competing in five Olympics was phenomenal," Paulette Freese of the Army's World Class Athlete Program said at the time of Davenport's death. "And he didn't just show up. He brought back the medals. He was a winner."

Davenport passed away in 2002, but he continues to influence the military's top athletes of the Winter Olympics today.

"He really relished working with young people and helping them along," said Chief Warrant Officer Dennis Loy, who worked with Davenport for almost three years.

Davenport was the chief of the National Guard Bureau's Office of Sports Management, which groomed Guard athletes in several sports, including biathlon and bobsledding.

"This program would not have gotten off the ground had it not been for Willie Davenport," Loy said.

Bobsledder Mike Kohn, a Virginia Guardsman who is competing in Vancouver, was one of the first athletes to join the National Guard's Outstanding Athlete Program. He won a bronze medal in men's bobsledding during the Salt Lake City games and hopes to reach the podium again this year.

In Salt Lake City, five of the eight members of the U.S. men's and women's biathlon teams were in the Army Guard.

Their success convinced Davenport that National Guard athletes could hold their own in international arenas just as he had done when he was younger.

This year, all three men's bobsled teams are piloted by current or former National Guard members, and the top female bobsledder in the world is Sgt. Shauna Rohbock, a member of the Utah National Guard.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16